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How Berlin became the 'capital city of Arab exile'

The Arab sociologist Amro Ali has illuminated Germany’s capital city as the center of an intellectual and artistic renaissance, fueled by Arab exiles from the authoritarian crackdowns that followed the 2011 uprisings.

By Mati Shemoelof

Amro Ali seen in a Berlin cafe. (Courtesy of Amro Ali)

Amro Ali seen at the Baynatna Arabic Library and bookstore in Berlin. (Courtesy of Amro Ali)

Berlin has become a magnet for political exiles from the Middle East in the years since the failed 2011 uprisings in Egypt and Syria. The city’s status as a hub for veterans of the Arab Spring was recently brought to life in an essay by Egyptian-Australian academic Amro Ali, who wrote about the role Berlin has come to play as the center of Arab intellectual life in the west. Ali’s article sparked a larger conversation about a future in what could be their city to reconstruct new political visions and practices. Mati Shemoelof interviewed him for +972 Magazine about what has changed in Egypt since the revolution of 2011, why young Arabs in Germany are becoming more politically involved, and his decision to focus on the exile phenomenon in Berlin.

How did you come up with the idea for this essay?

When I came to Berlin in 2015, I went to all these art galleries, plays, film screenings, musicals — all done by Arabs who had come to the city. I was dizzy with the richness of it all. People joked that Berlin had become the capital of the Arab world. And I started to think: What if Berlin were indeed the capital city of Arab exile? I submitted the idea to several German universities as a postdoc proposal, but was turned down. Ultimately, I pitched the article to Dis:Orient, an online magazine that publishes intellectual reporting about the Middle East and North Africa in German and English. The editors are all volunteers, and very professional.

You write: “Berlin is where the newly-arrived Arab suddenly (but not always) recognizes that the frightful habit of glancing over the shoulder — painfully inherited from back home — gradually recedes.” But in Berlin exiles cannot participate in civil society; they cannot vote.

I don’t see the bureaucratic machinery of politics as capable of striking joy and real public freedom. My perspective is closer to that of Hannah Arendt, who said that politics can only happen in a flourishing pluralistic space, where people come together and nurture some sort of civic consensus.

When did you first visit Berlin?

The first time I visited Berlin was in September 2011. At a café in Kreuzberg I met an Israeli who had refused to serve in the army, and who felt very guilty about the role he had played in an oppressive military regime. After learning that I was Egyptian he asked: “Do you hate me?” I answered that I absolutely did not hate him. The question is as bizarre as if a Palestinian were to ask me “Do you love me?’” He looked traumatized and said he could not go back to Israel.

Berlin is surrounded by right-wing extremists in Brandenburg and Saxony, which means that people fleeing violence in the Middle East find themselves again in a racist environment. How does this affect their ability to recover from trauma?

We have to separate Berlin from Germany. Berlin is still a very cosmopolitan place with a tolerant spirit. It is an anomaly in the European context. That doesn’t mean that things won’t change for the worse. I don’t see that as impossible. To Germany’s credit, they do have strong institutions that actively work against the right wing.

Tell me more about writing from a ‘we’ perspective. 

One of the biggest crises in the twenty-first century is the crisis of names and language. We don’t even know what “left” or “right” means anymore. We have people who call themselves leftists and yet support the regime of Bashar al-Assad because they see him as anti-imperialist. You can’t have a solution if you are asking the wrong questions. Young Arabs in Germany are engaging more in politics than the older generations. I know for example many young Syrians who think and yearn about returning to Syria after Assad falls. One Syrian student in Berlin told me two months ago, that until he read my essay he never thought about the exile body; but after reading it, he thinks of himself as actively part of this body in motion.

Did you participate in the Arab Spring?  What were you doing prior to that?

Prior to the 2011 Arab uprisings, I was interested in pursuing a career in international diplomacy. When the Egyptian uprising broke out in January 2011, I immediately flew to Cairo and even reconsidered my priorities: suddenly the world of diplomacy seemed to be mendacious and inauthentic. The events unfolding on the streets of Tunisia and Egypt felt human and authentic in the deepest sense. The Arab Spring was like a dream. I felt as though the gates of history had been opened. Cairo became a hub again not only for the Arab world but perhaps for other burgeoning revolutionary movements.

In light of the recent demonstrations in Egypt, do you think we can expect a renewed revolutionary movement to come out of Cairo?

Something has changed, but it’s not clear what and we are still trying to figure it out. History shows that you can only go so far with oppression, as an oppressor, or as a supporter for oppression. We forget that we live in a world of cause and effect. You cannot ally with the oppressor or hateful forces and expect positive effects to keep going your way over time. If you are committing a crime, you are being punished; you are going through endless anxiety and fear that detracts from your ability to be a better human being. The pendulum of justice eventually swings to what is good and just.

Mati Shemoelof is writer, poet, activist, author and editor now based in Berlin Germany. His latest poetry collection “Bagdad | Haifa | Berlin” was published by AphorismA Publishers. Read more: https://mati-s.com/.

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    COMMENTS

    1. itshak Gordine

      Berlin is again the city where Jews are beaten, this time mainly by Arabs. They are advised to avoid wearing the kippa. A shame..

      Reply to Comment
      • Rivka Koen

        A number of Israelis have moved to Berlin because they couldn’t stand Israel anymore. Seems like a wonderful place from all I’ve heard from them, especially compared to Israel. Only problem is that Germans are too hesitant to criticize Israel.

        Reply to Comment
        • Itshak Gordine

          Of course not. It is a few hundred Israeli leftists who have chosen Berlin mainly for economic reasons (and we only get better …). The only problem is that Arabs, extremists on the left and right have joined hands to insult and attack what looks like a Jew. Jewish communities are pushing the government to take action. The German government has understood that Israel is fighting fierce enemies and refuses to listen to the siren songs of anti-Semites and assimilated and leftist Jews.

          Reply to Comment
          • Rivka Koen

            Or maybe Israel has become a crushing, authoritarian, hyper-conformist society where the permitted range of political debate is tiny and dissent is brutally crushed. A society where trying to hold your government accountable results in a fine of 10,000 NIS (how’s that for an economic reason?).

            Maybe all of Israel’s best and brightest have to leave not for economic reasons, but for their own sanity – Israel is suffocating them. And furthermore, it’s suffocating lots of other people who simply can’t escape. They would leave if they could, but they can’t – for economic reasons. I’ll say one thing, I’m glad I’m not there.

            Reply to Comment
          • itshak Gordine

            Of course not. Israel is a country of freedom and joy. Yesterday, a parade of Christians from around the world took place in Jerusalem to support the State of Israel. Those who do not feel well in this country can of course leave. It is a country of freedom. For your information, 35,000 Jews made aliya in 2018. A prosperous economy, a return to Jewish traditions and the collapse of many of our enemies make us look forward to a bright future that some abroad envy us.

            Reply to Comment
          • itshak Gordine

            A recent study showed that Israelis are the thirteenth happiest inhabitants in the world. And, surprisingly, our fertility rate is the highest of any OECD country. Our sages say that the land of Israel spews the enemies of the Jewish people (whether Jewish or non-Jewish).

            Reply to Comment
          • Rivka Koen

            To begin with, you literally live in a country that tells people admitting to being unhappy is playing into the hands of the enemy. That’s how absolutely seriously you traumatize the psyches of Israelis, and it shows when they come abroad. You take terrible care of each other, and are vicious to anyone who doesn’t share the one opinion that everyone is allowed to have.

            Secondly, low birth rates correspond to good material conditions; high birth rates correspond to poor material conditions. This is a basic socioeconomic fact. If you’re breeding a lot, your life is probably miserable, brutal, and anything but free.

            What makes the ruling-class Jewish establishment of Israel and the Diaspora think breeding a lot is so good, anyway? We aren’t on the verge of extinction, and it isn’t a competition to see who can have the most babies. It’s not like other people aren’t having babies; the world isn’t short on either people or Jews. You’re just having more babies than is necessary. There’s no logic to having more children than your population can take care of, who will eventually become more elderly people than your population can take care of. Your future would be perfectly fine if you had fewer babies – but it’s a biological instinct to reproduce more under subpar conditions. You can’t help it when you’re that miserable. Just ask the traumatized post-World War II generation in America.

            Reply to Comment
          • Itshak Gordine

            You are wrong. Those who are not happy are free to leave and some leftists do. Unlike other countries, our birth rate does not come only from the poorest sections of the population, but from the entire Jewish population, which for some specialists is difficult to explain. By contrast, the Arab birth rate has dropped by 50% in 30 years. In Judea and Samaria, our birth rate is 60% higher than that of the Arab population. In 30 years we will have a majority in these provinces. Finally, and I repeat, the Israeli economy is prosperous and our currency, the Shekel, is the second strongest and most stable currency in the world according to Deutsche Bank. Jerusalem and Tel Aviv attract millions of foreign tourists despite the expensive life. So that the leftists go to Berlin for my greatest happiness. Cottage cheese is less expensive there.
            There are, however, some minor disadvantages in Israel. Difficult for a man to be stylish, to find a nice pair of shoes with leather soles and rare are the tailors able to sew you a custom suit. I am optimistic, it will come little by little .. Note that in Berlin the beautiful shoes imported from Hungary are very expensive.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Rivka believes Israelis hate their terrible, suffocating country.
            Hence, Israelis are desperate to leave – even to Eurabia.
            So how does she explain that Israelis are the 11th happiest people in the World ?
            PS: US is only 18th.

            See Gallup’s 2018 World Happiness Report.

            Reply to Comment
          • Rivka Koen

            Ask anyone in North Korea if they’re happy.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            You can’t, Rivka.
            Every visitor to N. Korea is accompanied by several government “handlers”.
            These handlers ensure NO questions are asked of any local citizens.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            The entity comprising Israel and the territories it occupies (which entity is not a country) is not North Korea, so one cannot draw an equivalence between the two places by any means, but the two places share some analogous features. Actually I think the better analogy is the now-defunct East German Stasi-state. With respect to the Palestinians it is frankyl Stasi-like. This is indisputable. But Israel has as well shut down free speech about boycott inside Israel and is trying its sinister dishonest best to, shockingly, get America to violate its First Amendment norms and prohibit free speech about boycotting Israel. A really loathsome effort, more akin to a Russian-style enemy than an American ally. The creepy interrogator who detained and interrogated Peter Beinart at Ben Gurion tried several blatantly dishonest tactics including invoking North Korea:
            https://forward.com/opinion/408066/peter-beinart-i-was-detained-at-ben-gurion-airport-because-of-my-beliefs/

            Reply to Comment
      • Some-one.

        The largest section of Jews in Palestine are Arab. The person who was beaten for wearing a Kippa was a non-Jewish Arab who decided to wear one for a day. Was he beaten though by Turks or was he beaten by Arabs? Do you know? If you do you should inform the Berlin police.

        Reply to Comment
        • itshak Gordine

          No, Jewish communities in Germany and Berlin in particular complain of a surge in anti-Semitism. Berlin has once again become an unsafe city for Jews because of right-wing, far-left and Arab-Muslim activists.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Everything by Itshak Gordine on this page is a version of this:

            “Something about Arabs not in the category of “terrorist”? Who cares? What matters is Jews, Jews, Jews, and only Jews, and we are always the victims and never the victimizers. Israel can do no wrong. We are Jews. The occupation? What occupation? Remember the Holocaust! Did you hear about the latest assault on a Jew somewhere in the world? It’s all the same here and it’s all one blurry Jews as victim episode. Because, right, left, center, Euro, Arab, in every generation they rise up against us. If a Palestinian hates the settlers its not because we steal his land and beat him into submission it’s because he just hates Jews. It’s as simple as that. Inexplicable Jew hatred. Which means it’s logically impossible for a Jew in the West Bank to do anything wrong versus a Palestinian. And besides, there is no such thing as a Palestinian anyway, they are non-persons, so it doesn’t really matter anyway.
            Who cares about Berlin and its culture and what goes on in it except as a source of stories about the bad, bad Awabs and Unhappy Leftist Loser Jews? And besides, we are “a country of freedom and joy.” (Did you hear Israel won 13th spot in the World Happiness Contest?!, I tell ya we right wing Jews are the greatest! Eurovision today, World Happiness Champ tomorrow, it’s a national effort, and if we by our actions on the ground make others unhappy, well, are they Jewish? Duh!)
            And that creepy Orwellian shiver you feel going down your spine when I say stuff like that about how “Israel is a country of freedom and joy”? That is the well known hard-wired “Real-Jew-Hatred Shiver Reflex” identified first by the well know expert Hasbarologist, Dr. Itshak G. Hasbaratchik.
            Now, if I could just find a good tailor around here to serve me and make me a fine suit so I can enjoy my role as a stylish manly Overlord dressed the elegant part, and waltz around the West Bank in the style I am accustomed to, that would be swell, and the wretch can also make me a fine Levite priestly robe while he’s at it. And the goats we are gonna sacrifice are gonna be happy goats!”

            Reply to Comment
          • itshak Gordine

            When ostriches are afraid, they bury their heads in the sand. When you are destabilized, you lay a long text full of ideas totally outdated .. The reality on the ground is anything other than what you write. The State of Israel is a huge success in every way. Its vast majority is very united, proud of its economic, social, artistic and other achievements. Conversely, the myth of the pseudo “Palestinian people” can only fail, and that’s what it does. Most Arab states have understood this well, since they form official or unofficial relations with the Jewish state. As for the fate of their “Palestinian” brothers, they do not care.
            By the way, did you ask yourself the question in order to know the reason for your sickly hatred of the State of Israel? There must be good psychiatrists in your country who can help you answer this question.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “When you are destabilized….” Says the bugged-eyed messianic fanatic who talks of the End of Days being right around the corner, the 21st century equivalent of the crusaders and the expellers of the Jews from Spain, the 21st century Jewish jihadi, the Jewish-Nationalist equivalent of Tom Cruise burbling about how only Scientologists can save the world and “now is our time!!!!”
            LoL.

            Reply to Comment
    2. itshak Gordine

      Since then it has become dangerous to walk with a Kipah in Berlin ..

      Reply to Comment